Please Put the Penguins Back

Dec. 9, 2009

Unfortunately, I have to write this blog because I’m mad. I’m not mad because I had to interview the Moon Mountain Ramblers, gosh no. They’re great. No problem there.

I’m mad because somebody stole the penguins.

The giant inflatable penguins, which were the Christmas decorations on the corner in Mosier. One decoration was just a huge inflatable 8-ft tall dude. Looked exactly like a Christmas penguin. The other, was a smaller penguin that lived in an inflatable igloo, and every 45 seconds or so, he would rise out of the igloo, wave, and then go back inside.

In fact, if you check my blog archives, those penguins were the subject of one my first write-ups here on the Web. We dealt with questionable wiring and electrical plugs to get those things set up, and this year, we had that all properly worked out.

I’m really mad about this, because the other night, we noticed that some of the light bulbs for these inflatable holiday penguins were burned out, and we spent 40 minutes freezing our butts off wrestling with these contraptions to replace the bulbs.

Have you ever tried to replace light bulbs in these things?? It’s one of these projects that requires you to do something, but you have no idea how to do it, and when you’re doing it, you can’t see anything, because there’s a giant inflatable penguin directly in your face and it’s 28 degrees out and then you think you finally find the light bulb after wrestling around with these things for 20 minutes hoping that you’re not breaking it beyond repair, only to find out that when you do actually find a light bulb you need a small Phillips screwdriver to undo two tiny screws of the weird light bulb plastic case and god forbid if you drop the screw because you’re never going to find it if you do, and this plastic case apparently exists so the heat from the bulb doesn’t burn through the penguin and deflate it.

It’s just like that, I tell you.

Well, I say this to the persons that took them. I hope you’re stupid enough to set them up at your house, that way the police will find you. And if I get to identify the penguins in a line up, I’ll be able to tell if they’re the same ones I worked on.

I’ve got the burned out light bulbs to prove it.

And now, back to our regular blog. Please enjoy an interview with the Moon Mountain Ramblers. They’ll be appearing at River City Saloon on Friday, Dec. 11. And hopefully, by then, we’ll be able to say the penguin thieves will be in jail and Mosier will get their decorations back.

Interview with the Moon Mountain Ramblers:

Hi there, this is Joe Schulte, the mandolin player of the band, I will gladly answer some questions you had.

1. How did this band meet and how long have you been playing together?

A good friend and I moved to Bend from Alaska to live and go to school. We grew up learning bluegrass and "Dawg" music from the same teacher so we had a bunch of tunes but we needed a bass player to fill out our sound. We were 18 and a couple of trouble makers at the time.

So one day I saw an ad in a local music shop for an upright bass player seeking swing/jazz/bluegrass band. We thought this would be perfect for our kind of music. So we called him up and set up a meeting. We get to the door and he opens, it was then we realized our age difference! “Bass Dawg Dan” as we now call him was in his 40's and dressed in nice clothes while we were practically in rags and just out of high school!

We decided to try it anyways and long story short, we decided we loved playing together and started the band! We soon found we needed a fiddle and another friend of mine who worked at the local theater said a gal he works with plays in the orchestra. We had her come over and taught her how to play without sheet music and we now had Jenny, who is still our fiddle player to this day!

Then a few years later we added "Mai," a great multi instrumentalist and singer. None of us could sing very well so this was great for us. Over time Mai took over the guitar position and my high school buddy went his own way. We now had our core group who are all still together today as the Moon Mountain Ramblers.

Besides David Grisman, one of our big influences was a semi local band named TAARKA. Sort of acoustic gypsy music that was heavily drum based. We came to find that their drummer was a local Bend resident, and when we heard the news that he could no longer work full time with TAARKA, we quickly found his number and gave him a call. This was the last step in creating our current line up which very much feels like "the" line-up. We work very well together and enjoy making a "non-traditional" bluegrass sound with many other musical influences.

Dan and I met 10 years ago, and Jenny was part of the group then too, so 3 out of 5 of us have been together that long. Mai came in about 6 yrs ago and Dale the Drummer about 3yrs now. We now use Dale’s house as a practice and recording space.

2. Your bio lists an impressive list of folks you guys have played with. That seems to be a common theme here for upcoming shows in Hood River (we've got Cascadia Yulegrass coming Dec. 16 (which is a show your band should check out, btw)). What's it like playing on the same bill as McCoury and Grisman?

It was amazing to get these offers, I did mention TAARKA as a main influence, and this is true, but Grisman and Del McCoury have always been our top inspirations, long before we ever shared a stage with them. When we got these offers, it was like the greatest feeling in the world. Especially opening for Grisman. We were a younger band at the time and we were playing a lot of his music, so we had to think of other songs we could play that would not conflict! Don't want to play Dawg's song in front of him, no way!

This was the biggest natural high I ever had, and probably will ever have, I think this holds true for the other members too, it was amazing. It was a friend of Grisman’s who taught me how to play mandolin so I always had a deep respect for David Grisman and his music, and his influence on modern acoustic music. And as for Del and the Boys, I mean WOW. We couldn't believe that either! Mai, our lead guitar and singer is especially fond of these southern boys' music. We had all recently seen Del in Portland too and as every body knows, these guys are the kings of bluegrass music. To open for them was such a rush, and it was right here in downtown Bend in the small intimate Tower Theater. We were sad that the boys showed up late to the show so we didn't get to chat with them long but still, it was a great night for us, one we nor any of our fans who were there will ever forget.

3. A few years ago I was on the Alaska Bluegrass Cruise, which featured John Reischman and the Jaybirds. I even took a mando lesson from John, but, alas, I still can't "play like him." Who do you guys "go to" for music inspiration?

Well, from question number 2 you can get a feel for our main inspirations, but the cool thing is, each member of MMR has a very distinct and different background in music. Dale is more of a world music lover, Dan comes from Texas and it shows, I am the instrumental Grisman/Taarka type while also listening to Hip hop and rock music religiously (I know, weird), Mai comes from Chatanooga Tennessee and loves Southern rock and rootsy bluegrass music while Jenny has a strong classical history.

All of these influences show strongly in our band. It makes for a unique sound at times I must say, but we and our fans seem to really enjoy it, it works for us. We are still searching for the perfect tag line or slogan or just explanation of our music, bluegrass just isn't right, although it probably is still the strongest root of our sound.

4. Tell us some technical details about your stage set up - how do you get the sounds we hear on the CD to the audience? When you make a CD, is it all individual tracks or do you go with everybody at once?

We have done a bit of experimenting in the studio, mostly because we realize the importance of staying true to our live sound while still trying to make an excellent studio record. On our latest album "Let it All Be Good," we did live takes, each with our own separate mics. This way, we captured our live energy, but still had room for small edits if need be. If the mandolin or something slipped on a chord or didn't quite get the right solo down, it could most likely be re-recorded. We were unable to be in separate rooms due to our studio options though so this only worked up to a certain point, only small edits were possible, so we really had his pressure of getting good "live" takes in order to put down a successful record.

I think it shows too, I feel good about this latest album, I do feel it gives a good representation of the band. You may notice though that Track 1, the title track is all electric with electric guitars, bass, drum kit and all. We do actually do this live, although very rarely, usually just on New Years Eve gigs or bigger special gigs like that. We usually like to just stick to our acoustic set up. We decided to throw a true live track on the end to really show our listeners what we do completely live, it is our take on Grismans popular tune "E.M.D."

Our first self titled album was also done this way, with the live takes, while our second, "Borderline," was done completely separately, one track at a time. It turned out good, but you can tell it's lacking that live feel, it has some great tunes on it though.

On our live stage, we all plug our instruments in although we understand it will never give the same quality as going all microphones. We do this because many of our shows get loud and rowdy and people love to get down and dance and have a great time.

We feel that at our shows it is more important to be heard than to worry about perfect tone, although I must say, for all being plugged in, we seem to find pretty darn good tone. We have a great sound man who works with us and we try to use top quality gear, as much as we can.

I compare our sound to other similar bands when I see there shows, and I always walk away feeling confident about what we are doing. At select shows, we do enjoy using just mics, sometimes even huddling around a single mic much like Del and The Boys.

5. "Stuck in the Middle" is a great tune, but way out of the bluegrass genre. Not that I mind, though. How do songs get on your setlist?

As I kind of mentioned earlier, we as a band of five have a largely diverse musical background and interest. At our shows it's not uncommon to hear us slip into some early rock or other influences such as Pink Floyd, Beatles, Zeppelin, Herbie Hancock and more. Heck we even throw some Michael Jackson in there now and then. We thought that might be silly but the crowd always seems to love it!

Our main goal as a band is to have tons of fun while always respecting our roots and always staying concerned that we are putting out a great sound. We take pride in our sound quality, instrumental performance, harmony, dynamics, and really try to feel out the crowd making sure to do our best to accommodate the scene. We have about 7-8 hours of music we can play- a huge list, so we can play very different shows if we want to.

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